When a wide assortment of the county’s bankers, elected officials, executives, real estate agents and other big wigs all gather for breakfast, one can’t expect they’re very interested in hearing bad news.

Thus, at a Feb. 22 breakfast presentation of the 2008 Ventura County Economic Outlook (an encore presentation of the Feb. 21 event featured by Hannah Guzik on page 6 in the article titled “Economists paint a grim picture”), it wasn’t a surprise that University of California, Santa Barbara economists tried to put as positive a spin as possible on the region’s tanking economy. Without letting the county totally off the hook, the UCSB Economic Forecast Project suggested that area residents (especially those west of the Conejo Grade and further removed from the twin crises at Amgen and Countrywide) may narrowly escape a recession. Still, as Guzik explores in her article and the forecast project details, there are variety of reasons local leaders should be concerned about the economy.

Fortunately for the chamber-of-commerce-laden, free-enterprise-first-heavy crowd, perhaps, the presentation just wasn’t complete without someone to tell the audience not to pay much heed to reality. Featured speaker Wendell Cox is a senior fellow at the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based think tank which espouses free-market policies as the solutions to a number of social and economic problems. He is also a visiting fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Of course, attendees of the $110 a plate event weren’t made aware of these fact. All they were told was that Cox would speak on the topic of “Smart Growth.”

What Cox actually spoke about was the idea that just about any effort to promote car-free, mass-transit-friendly, growth-controlled communities were bound to fail. Certainly, Cox may have thought he had a receptive crowd among business leaders who might find Ventura County, the home of the Save Open-Space and Agricultural Resources, or SOAR, a tough place to transform into an Orange County clone. Yet if Cox believed that he could pull the wool over the eyes of an audience representing a community working hard to create a sustainable future he was misled.

There is nothing wrong with drawing attention to the faults of smart growth measures, or any social or political policy. Criticism is healthy, and unquestioning devotion to political trends easily transforms to dogma and complacency. However, Cox’s criticism of smart growth was flawed for multiple reasons.

First of all, the data he presented in his presentation were suspect. He provided little authority beyond his own voice and some colorful graphs to why notable models for smart growth are flawed and no connection to reality. Suggesting for example that the city of Portland, Oregon is a traffic-wrought mess of suburbs outside its urban growth boundaries and that its vaunted public transportation system fails to serve most of the area economy, Cox failed to recognize the broader strengths of Portland’s planning process. Yes, unfortunately there are some surrounding communities of tract homes and car culture. Portland is still an American city with American problems.

The vast majority of that city, though, is easily accessible through a combination of its MAX train, trolleys, buses, bicycles and walking. Cox failed to recognize that Portland’s true strength is the multitude of vibrant, walkable (and bikeable) neighborhoods. Each forms its own hub within a broader urban network. That model is one, with time and diligence, Ventura County communities could easily emulate.

Cox also suggested that the city of Atlanta, with a vast, quickly growing freeway network is a better example of what communities should aspire toward. Yet when challenged by an audience member who spent many years in that city and left precisely because Atlanta is becoming choked by traffic and homogenizing, Cox had little response. Nor did he address other real problems connected to Atlanta’s rapid growth in the past decade, such as the immense strain the region’s explosion has put on water supplies in the Southeast.

Failure to look at the complete economic picture is precisely the reason Cox was such a poor choice of speaker. If one looks closer at Cox’s background and that of the Heartland Institute, one discovers that they share the ideology of those who have led this nation into crisis. Perhaps most alarming, the Heartland Institute is a primary proponent of the idea that climate change is not a crisis. With such credentials, perhaps it is no surprise that Cox supports ramshackle, unrestrained community growth.

A more in-depth look at Cox’s background — and his travel through intensely right-wing, freemarket circles — might have prompted the event’s planners to find a more balanced speaker. Then again, maybe someone in touch with reality wouldn’t have told guests at the breakfast what they wanted to hear.